Public Speaking is Nothing to Fear
Do You Like to Speak in Public
Public Speaking is a Marketing Opportunity
Public Speaking Should be Part of Your Branding Strategy
It doesn’t matter what kind of organization you run, there are times when you will need to speak in public, and this does not mean elevator speeches. Some view this as an excellent marketing opportunity, whether the subject is your business specifically or your industry and its effects on the audience. Make no mistake about it: it is a great branding opportunity. Do a good job and you will be asked to speak in front of other groups. Organizations of all types are on the constant look-out for speakers, and landing a speaking engagement is quite easy. All you need do is send a notice of your availability to as many groups as you can identify. Rotary clubs, for example, meet weekly, usually for lunch. Every club has a program chairperson whose job you can make easier by volunteering to give a talk. Say, for example, you head an insurance agency. Hurricane season (June to November) is a great time to speak to people about disaster preparedness. You give a good talk, providing real value for the audiences and, of course, you leave behind literature with your name and company contacts.
The deal is simple. You provide value by giving an informative talk, and in return you have the opportunity to introduce yourself to prospective customers. This is marketing at its best: person-to-person contact with real people. Public speaking opportunities should be in your business plan.
It’s important that your speaking engagement should not be a simple sales pitch. Nothing turns off an audience more than being captive to somebody just hawking his wares. Your talk should be peppered with phrases such as “Whether you deal with my company or someone else’s, you should always be aware of such and such.” People expect subtle plugs, just not an infomercial.
The Fear Factor
Speaking in public appeals to some people as much as sleeping with rattle snakes. Statistically, public speaking tops the list of things that people fear most, even more so than death. It even has a scary-sounding name: glossophobia. Jerry Seinfeld once quipped that most people would rather be the corpse than the one who delivers the eulogy. There is something about standing in front of a group that causes profound anxiety for some people. If you are frightened by the idea of speaking in public, don’t feel bad; you are not alone. Any curbside psychologist will tell you that your fear probably has something to do with a childhood memory, long suppressed. As a kid you may have once sounded out in public, only to be batted down by some adult, probably a parent, and you were made to feel ashamed and embarrassed. Your little brain got the message that public speaking is a bad thing. Your hidden self now recalls that shame and embarrassment, and it shows up in your adult life as fear.
Do entertainers entertain us because they had bad experiences when they first stood before an audience as a kid? It’s more likely that they had a wonderful experience, and they spend their lives looking for that positive feedback.
But you may not have had the positive experience of a young entertainer. You may fall into that large cohort of folks who fear the podium and go through life letting opportunities slip through their hands because of a long-forgotten childhood incident. It’s time for an attitude check. First, simply recognize that you have a fear of speaking in public. Yes, you have the fear, and don’t deny it. We don’t get to pick our phobias—they were picked for us.
How to Overcome Your Fear of Public Speaking
Observe your Fear and Then Control it.
There is an old Zen proverb: “The first step to enlightenment is observation.” Begin by observing that you are afraid of the podium. This does not mean that you should continue to avoid speaking in public or, for those times when you can’t avoid it, experience the terrible anxiety and all that goes with it—the pounding chest, the soaking armpits, and the pain in your stomach. What you need to do is change your reality. There are a number of reality-changing organizations out there that are dedicated to helping you overcome your fear of public speaking.
Organizations That Coach Public Speaking
Just Google “public speaking fear,” and you will find a small industry of folks dedicated to helping you solve the problem. The Dale Carnegie Course, the granddaddy of programs that help people speak in public, began almost 100 years ago in 1912, when Dale Carnegie himself began teaching his famous course at a YMCA. Definitely investigate www.dalecarnegie.com. Toastmasters International, founded in 1942, is another venerable organization that helps people to speak in public. See www.toastmasters.org. Other organizations you can turn to include fearlesspresentations.com, speakingwithoutfear.com, stresscure.com (this site has a very good paper on the subject), mypublicspeakingfear.org, nosweatspeaking.com, and countless others. Public speaking help is out there. It’s up to you to reach out and find it.
The Four Categories of Public Speakers
- The Fearful. You are dreadfully afraid of public speaking. You need assistance and it’s out there as discussed in the paragraph above. Go get it.
- The Uncomfortable. You are uncomfortable with public speaking, with some fear perhaps, but you just don’t like to speak in public, and you do so reluctantly.
- The Terrible. You are not at all afraid of speaking in public and do so often, but you are terrible, and you don’t notice that your audience begins to slip away, or falls asleep. You don’t prepare because you don’t care. You just like to mouth off. There are a lot of you out there. Your job is to get better, to deliver value to your audience, or please, just shut up.
- The Good. You are a good public speaker, perhaps a great one.
Tips and Tools for Public Speaking
The following are time-honored tips, and they are aimed at categories 2, 3, and 4 above. As for category 1, reading these tips won’t help you; get some training instead.
Prepare, prepare, prepare. This is the most important principle. Spend time preparing your talk. Print out your notes in large type, so you can see at a glance where you are (few organizations provide teleprompters). Walk around your office and deliver your speech, or consider going home to avoid distractions. Deliver it to your spouse or a good friend. Deliver the speech to your dog—there’s nothing like an enraptured audience. The last thing you want your audience to see is a person who stumbles around from one topic to another in a disjointed stream of consciousness. Not only can this hurt your brand, but it ensures that you will never be invited back again. Your command of the material will give you tremendous confidence because you’re prepared for questions and interruptions. Preparation rules the day. Have you ever seen a person who loved to speak in public and would seize any opportunity to do so, even though he was he was terrible, an insufferable bore who never got to the point because it wasn’t apparent that he had one? This is a category three speaker. His talks are rambling, unprepared and unfocused bits of information that pop into his head. He has no fear of speaking, but audiences fear him. He shows an absolute lack of preparation. Unfortunately there are a lot of terrible speakers amuck in the world. You can tell who they are just by looking at the audience: heads bowed, checking their email. Deliver to your audience, and you will be invited back.
Move. If your material is complicated and you need to be at the podium to refer to your notes, that’s perfectly okay, but by all means move—your head, your shoulders, and your hands. It helps keep the audience focused. Practice gestures, and use them at appropriate times.
Speak from your diaphragm, not your throat. This is speech class 101. The diaphragm is the large muscle that separates the chest or thoracic cavity from the abdomen. Public speakers who have learned to speak from the diaphragm rather than the throat, know that it gives resonance and authority to the voice. Compare Gilbert Gottfried, the very funny but whiney comedian to President Obama. Gottfried is pure throat, which he uses to comedic effect. President Obama, on the other hand, is a master of diaphragmatic speaking. His voice can resonate through a stadium or a meeting room, and his delivery is flawless. It takes practice; it can be mastered.
Include the room in your view, looking to different parts of the audience. Some people get nervous making eye contact with an individual in the audience. If this is you, look to distant parts of the audience rather than the closer attendees. If you look to the back of the room, as some speaking coaches suggest, do not look up at the ceiling, but just over the heads of the people in the last row. Looking someone square in the eye is difficult for a long period of time. Actors are coached to look at their fellow actor’s nose or cheekbone, not the eyes, in a scene that requires a face-to-face encounter. If you look someone straight in the eye, you might notice a pained expression. What you don’t know is that the person with the pained look on his face just remembered that he forgot an important appointment, and the look on his face had nothing to do with your talk.
Get out of your head. Some speakers are natural and effective when speaking to their own group, but put on a false demeanor when in front of a strange crowd. Among friends or colleagues the speaker thinks about what he wants to say, not about how he looks. In front of a strange crowd this speaker goes into his head and worries only about how he appears to others. It’s not about you; it’s about your message. Concentrate on your message, and you will look good; concentrate on how you look, and you will look uncomfortable.
The audience is not out to get you. Think of yourself when you’re a member of the audience. Are you waiting for the speaker to slip up, hoping that it happens? Of course not; you want the speaker to be good, effective, and to not waste your time. You are on the speaker’s side: you both want the same thing—a good, informative talk. The same holds true when you are on the other side of the podium. Every audience contains a pickle puss, someone who just has a sour expression. But for some folks this is a sign of concentration, not an expression of displeasure. Don’t be concerned about people’s faces.
Small details can make a big difference. Some things seem obvious, but are nevertheless worth mentioning. If you are going to use audiovisual aids like a computer projector, make sure the damn thing works before you start your talk! Get there early to check it out. Arriving early is also a good idea just to give you a feel for the room. If the sun streams in from one side, make sure to speak from the other side so that the audience will not be squinting at a talking shadow. If you have materials to hand out, either pass them out yourself before the people arrive or enlist the aid of someone in the organization to help you.
Handling jerks. Do you have a short fuse when people ask stupid questions? Always remember the First Rule of Jerk Handling: do not empower the jerk. There is no hard and fast set of rules because hecklers heckle in many different ways, but remember this: the other people in the audience don’t like jerks either, and you will notice some raised eyes or shaking heads as the performance artist does his or her thing. Try to enlist the aid of these allies by asking questions directed at them; they want to help you because they are embarrassed by the amateur comedian in their organization. This is a public speaking skill that you need to master.
You can't avoid public speaking, so it's best not to try. Learn to love it, or at least be neutral toward it. It's an opportunity to promote your brand.